Medieval Rhodes

The Knights of St John


Part Two

'Blessed are they who die in the Lord'

but how much more so are those who die for him

St Bernard of Clairvaux


Each 'tongue' maintained its own inn on the Island where the members assembled and offered hospitality to important visitors and pilgrims from Western Europe. The leaders of each 'tongue' (pillerius), always came from a leading family of their country and belonged to the highest category of officer. Each was given specific duties within the Order and there had to be at least four leaders of the 'tongues' residing on Rhodes at any one time. No-one could be absent from the seat of council without permission of the council and whenever a leader was away, the 'tongue' he belonged to were responsible for appointing his deputy.

Once the knights had finally settled on Rhodes and approval for the community given by the Pope, they started to quickly rebuild the defences and reorganise the Order. The Pope issued a bull giving the order the privilege of appointing the Island's Latin archbishop, and he was given the grand title of 'Archiepiscopus Colossensis'. The local Greek orthodox community were somewhat persecuted by the knights and they cut off all spiritual connections with Constantinople soon after establishing themselves. Subsequently, the Orthodox bishopric of Rhodes was to remain a vacant see until the mid 15th century, when church unification was initiated.

The cities defences at Rhodes were to take shape around the port, which was divided up into two harbours. The outer harbour was formed by a long curving neck of land reaching out into the sea and was the commercial area. The inner harbour, or 'Harbour of the Galleys', lay in a land locked bay with a narrow entrance guarded by the Fort of St Nicholas. The outer harbour defences were formed by the twin towers of St Michael, or Tower of the Arabs, but better known as the Tower de Naillac, and on the seaward side by the Tower of Angels which is sometimes known as the Tower of Windmills or of France. Between these two towers stretched a huge chain which protected and blocked the harbour.

The city itself was built in a semi-circle around these harbours protected by a double wall with thirteen towers and five projecting bastions - one of which was manned by the English brethren.

Street of the Knights, which contains several Inns of the 'Tongues' of Rhodes

In 1316, fairly soon after their establishment on the Island, a great scandal took place which was to shake the very foundations of the Order. There were several minor internal dissensions on Rhodes between the "tongues" and the following year, an elderly commander named Fra' Maurice de Pagnac tried to arrest Fra' Fulques de Villaret, the founder of the order on the Island and now Grand Master.

De Vilaret had been a capable commander, but was a rather overbearing sort of character. He had become increasingly dictatorial in his running of the order but suddenly went completely to pieces and started drinking in the taverns and womanising. He managed to escape de Pagnac and his fellow brethren when they came for him by fleeing and shutting himself away in the castle on the acropolis of Lindos.

In 1319, de Vilaret's abdicated as Grand Master and retired to a commandery in Languedoc where he stayed until his death. Fra' de Pagnac had by now died and so the brothers elected Fra' Elyon de Villeneurve as their superior and new Grand Master. Life on the Island after this scandal remained monastic, with the brethren eating and sleeping within their own 'langue' but attending chapters and important feasts in the magisterial palace, matters soon returned to normal.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the concept of the Crusade was dying, the loss of the sites in the Holy Land and the withdrawal to Cyprus by the martial monks saw a sharp wane of interest in their causes. This was not a good time for the Order of St John and despite their property gains at the expense of the Templars, there was a steady all round decline in their revenues. The financial collapse of the Florentine banks in the 1340's caused the Order some problems, but they were also hit hard by the Black Death and lost almost a third of their number. This not only affected them, but also the other commanderies in Western Europe which lead to a further decline in their revenues.

Central Courtyard of the Hospital on Rhodes

The Hospitallers'' had by now turned towards what was to become their chief business, the sea. They saw it as their duty to protect Christian merchants and to intercept or harass Moslem traders. The knights had their own cargo fleet and pilgrim vessels, yet their battle flotilla was to become one of the most feared and respected in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.

A Hospitaller battle flotilla seldom contained more than a dozen vessels and was made up of small, extremely fast moving galleys. They were the hardest hitting warships of their day and usually carried about twenty-five men-at-arms with probably up to twice as many crossbowmen. Their torpedo of the day was a giant iron ram which stove in the enemy ships timbers and mangonels were their artillery. These techniques usually crippled the ship as opposed to sinking it, enabling the knights to board and overthrow the crew.

All knights had to perform a certain amount of time at sea to gain promotion and a patrol voyage would often last several months. They lived in great discomfort on their tightly packed galleys, squeezing themselves into an vessel which was designed and built totally for speed and fighting. The knights and their patrons would sleep huddled together under a tent on the stern platform and their provisions were mostly limited to oil soaked biscuits and watered down wine. This was luxury though compared to the conditions the wretched galley slaves had to endure, whose numbers were made up of criminals and captured Saracens.

The Aegean Sea is often lashed by storms as the colder air streams from the north meet the warmer air coming up from Africa. Experience of these difficult conditions at sea soon turned the knights into very competent sailors, and it wasn't long before the fighting monks of Rhodes became known as the greatest fighting seamen of their age.

The first hospital built by the knights on Rhodes with 6th Century font in foreground

Mameluke Egypt had remained strong and threatening to the south, but the monks on Rhodes suffered little from them as they saw their main threat coming from Cyprus. Turkey to the north and west was now a mass of Turkish emirates ruled by the ghazis (warriors of the faith). On the monks initial arrival at Rhodes they weren't too much of a problem and only experienced minor raids, but later years saw them banding together more due to their expanding interests with their eyes firmly fixed on Rhodes and the enemy at their gates.

The sea-knights continued to win victory after victory and those who managed to escape went home and told of the 'devil dogs of the infidel' in their fearsome galleys. One such victory came when Grand Commander Albrecht von Schwarzburg was escorting the Genoese governor of Chios to his Island when they were attacked by a Turkish fleet. The Turks were routed with only six of their ships managing to escape under the cover of darkness, most of the others were drowned or killed in the water.

The ghazis wanted revenge and the following year in 1320, Rhodes was blockaded by eighty warships. Albrecht, by now a naval commander of some experience, sailed out to meet them with a battle squadron of four galleys and a dozen other vessels. Most of the Turkish warships were either boarded or sent to the bottom, leaving their entire force, who had landed on a nearby Island, trapped and had little option but to surrender to the knights.

In 1334 a combined fleet of Hospitaller, Papal, Cypriot, French and Venetian crusaders ambushed the port of Yakshi, emir of Marmora, off the Island of Episkopia. This led to a running battle which lasted for nine days, with the crusaders out-sailing and out fighting the emir's navy sending over 100 of his vessels to the seabed.

In 1344, Pope Clement VI had learned that the Umir of Aydin was building a navy. In answer to this Clement formed the Latin league comprising of Cyprus, Venice and Rhodes and put together an armada of twenty-four galleys which were commanded by Fra' Gian de Biandra. They stormed Umur's stronghold at Smyrna in October, burning his entire navy of over 300 ships at anchor. The victories continued and the whole of Christendom celebrated, for a while it looked like a major Crusade would shortly be organised, but this was cut short by the arrival of the Plague sweeping across Asia and Europe.

Side entrance to the Inn of Provence

In 1364-5, Hugh IV of Cyprus had been hawking his way around Europe trying to gather momentum for a crusade. On his return to the Island he found that it had been laid waste by Turkish raiders. He travelled at once to Venice, where he managed to gather support and a large armada of 165 vessels, which included sixteen Hospitaller galleys under the command of Fra' Ferlino d'Airasca.

In June they set sail and were joined by the Cypriot fleet in August, after which they turned and headed for Alexandria. The destination had been kept secret and the Mamelukes were completely taken by surprise by the arrival of the fleet, although they put up some fierce resistance and defended their walls with great honour. At first the Christians were beaten back and their scaling ladders thrown down, but some sailors made their way into the city via a drain and forced open a gate letting in the attackers. Many brethren fell during the assault and prodigies of valour were performed on both sides, although the eventual victory was tarnished by the massacre of 20,000 men women and children.

By the last quarter of the fourteen century, the whole of the Latin East was failing. The Turks were swallowing Greece, Bosnia, Serbia and the tsardoms of the Bulgars were also conquered. In 1394, Rome had to endure the indignity of Sultan Bayezid proclaiming himself 'Sultan of Rome'. The Pope answered in 1396 by launching a massive expedition to the Balkans which was supported by troops from all over Europe. The Hospitallers were represented by Master Philibert de Naillac and his galleys sailed up the Danube from the Black Sea to join the expedition. It was a total disaster and the force was almost completely annihilated by Sultan Bayezid at the Battle of Nicopolis on 25th September. The future Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund and Master Philibert de Naillac narrowly escaping in boats down the River Danube.

Things did not look good for the Christian west and matters were to take an even worse turn for the knights on Rhodes. In 1426 Sultan Barsbei dispatched an armada of 180 galleys to attack Cyprus. The Island fell and the Mamelukes burnt Nicosia to the ground laying the whole kingdom to waste. King Janus of Cyprus was captured and paraded through the streets of Cairo on a donkey and was held for a year until an enormous ransom of 200,000 ducats was paid.

The St John Gate, also known as the Kosinou Gate or The Red Door

After the fall of Cyprus, matters were to never be quite the same for the Hospitaller knights on Rhodes. The destruction of the Island meant a great loss of wealth to the order, as for many years they had been the largest landowner on the Island. Rhodes, it seems, was now standing alone as the last and only heir of Crusader Jerusalem.


* Continued on Page Three *


All pictures and text on this page where shown, are copyright to the owner

and must not be reproduced in any format without permission.


Another Castles Abbeys and Medieval Buildings Site Feature